STILLWATER, Minn.-When a plastic Rubbermaid garbage can and a cardboard box full of unidentified black-and-white photos were dropped off at the Barnes County Historical Society in Valley City, N.D., last month, curator Wes Anderson started looking for clues.
He quickly realized many of the shots had a connection to Forest Lake, Minn.
There was a photo of the Forest Lake post office, a shot of a baseball player wearing a Forest Lake jersey and another of a hotel on a lake. Most seemed to have been taken by a man named Otto Johnson.
Anderson tracked down Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater. "They all looked to be of the same era," Anderson said. "There were definitely a lot more trees there than here. Just by deductive reasoning and sheer stubbornness or accident, I got them to where they belonged."
They arrived in Stillwater via U.S. Postal Service a few days later.
Peterson is sifting through the collection and asking for the public's help in identifying the subjects. He plans to reach out to the Forest Lake Area Historical Society and post photos on Facebook.
Johnson, who ran a Forest Lake dry-goods store with his brothers, took his film to Truman W. Ingersoll Photography in downtown St. Paul to be developed, Peterson said.
"There are some fabulous photos here," he said, looking through dozens of pictures scattered on a table in an office behind the Warden's House Museum in Stillwater.
Do you know who they are?
A photo of Frances Marie and Dorothy Olive Simmons showed young girls in matching dresses and hair bows. In another, a man named Peter Simmons is selling pianos. Peter Simmons ran a piano store and undertaking parlor on the west side of Lake Street in Forest Lake in the early 1900s, Peterson said.
"That might explain this photo," he said, pointing to a picture of a body in a coffin.
There's a shot of guests outside the Marsh Hotel, the city's first major hotel, which was located on the north shore of Forest Lake. "It was one of the very early places up in Forest Lake where you could go to visit, rent canoes and enjoy the lake," Peterson said. "I think this gentleman here is Michael Marsh. He was the first postmaster of Forest Lake."
In the 1870s and 1880s, the Marsh Hotel and surrounding grounds included three large buildings with 75 guest rooms, a large dining room and several outbuildings. "It was only open in the summer. Marsh would send a carriage to the Forest Lake (train) depot every day to pick up tired travelers and vacationers to bring them to the hotel," Peterson said. "The cost to stay was $2 per day, or $10 per week. President Grover Cleveland had dinner there with his wife on June 27, 1888."
Many of the photos remain unidentified.
Among them: workers in the basement of a building, women dressed in Japanese kimonos, hunters showing off their guns and fowl, and a Stillwater restaurant.
How a North Dakota farmer got the photos
Some of the photos belong back in North Dakota, Peterson said. For example, a shot showing the Harshman and Greek store in Eckelson, N.D., is "going back to Wes," he said.
Jim Flynn, who donated the photos to the Barnes County Historical Society, said he is glad historians are working to identify them. Flynn, 89, is a retired farmer in Valley City, but he grew up in Eckelson, which is about 20 miles west.
"A man from Tower City (N.D.) bought them at an auction and gave them to a neighbor of mine in Dazey (N.D.)," Flynn said. "The neighbor - Doug Quick - brought them over to the house and said, 'They're from Eckelson. You ought to know them,'" he said. "The only photo I recognized was of the Eckelson School."
Anderson, who has been curator of the historical society for 20 years, said he was happy that Flynn recognized their worth.
"They had been sitting in a garage all these years, and this was about their last hurrah," he said.
Anderson said could not find any records of Otto Johnson in North Dakota. "He didn't die in North Dakota, either, that I can find anyway," he said. "It's a mystery. It's a big mystery."
Keep the family pictures and write captions, please
Anderson, 43, said future mysteries could be avoided by identifying family photos in your possession.
"Sit down with your elders, and write on your pictures now," he said. "Get them out of the closet, get them out of the basement. Sit down with the oldest person in your family and start documenting who the pictures are, where they're at, what they're doing."
Historic photos have value, even if people aren't identified, he said.
"We'll talk to people who say, 'Grandma died, and we threw away all the pictures because we didn't know who they were,'" Anderson said. "There are all kinds of stuff that can be said with a photograph, even if it has no documentation. The cars that are in it, what the people are doing, what people are wearing."
Sadly, people often throw away photos, diaries and letters and keep wedding dresses and uniforms, he said.
"After Grandma dies, they clean out the house, and they bring us the wedding dress and the uniform, and the diaries are gone, the letters are gone, the pictures are gone," he said. "I don't need any more wedding dresses, I don't need any more uniforms. Just bring me (the other things), or at least let me see them before you throw them out."
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